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Sharing the Beach With Pollution

With sewage rules stifled, a dip can be sickening.

July 04, 2002|DAVID BECKMAN and NANCY STONER | David Beckman and Nancy Stoner are senior attorneys at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Vacation season is now in full swing, with families across the country flocking to their favorite travel destinations. For many Americans, that means packing swim trunks, piling into the car and heading straight for the water. Summer is all about the sun, the surf, the sand and, unfortunately, the sewage.

These days, pollution from clogged or broken sewer systems is too often an unwelcome visitor in our recreational waters.

When sewer systems are not properly maintained or they get overloaded, untreated wastewater flows from our toilets into waterways instead of the treatment plants.

The federal Environmental Protection Agency estimates that sewage spills occur about 40,000 times a year. Sewage pollution causes fish kills and shellfish contamination and last year accounted for more than 2,200 beach closings and advisories nationwide, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Southern California residents are all too familiar with sewage pollution. Los Angeles, with its 6,500 miles of sewers--nearly half of which are at least 50 years old--reported 682 sewage spills last year. As a result, the city has found itself in federal litigation with local environmental organizations such as the Santa Monica BayKeeper and homeowners who suffer not only from the spills but from continuing odors. To its credit, the EPA also has joined the fray to fight the sewage problem in Los Angeles.

Sewage in the water can do more than disrupt the fishing or spoil a day at the beach. Every year millions of Americans get sick from swimming in rivers, lakes and coastal waters contaminated with raw sewage. The most common illness is gastroenteritis, which can cause fever, vomiting and diarrhea. People exposed to pathogens in sewage-contaminated water also can contract respiratory illnesses, dysentery and hepatitis. The health risk is greater for children and people with weakened immune systems.

Although swimming-related illnesses usually are not severe or life-threatening, they are inconvenient and unpleasant at best and often result in lost work time, as well as ruined vacations.

So what's being done to address this widespread problem?

In January 2001, the federal government announced regulations to minimize sewer spills into waterways and require sewer operators to notify the public when they happen. The EPA estimates the cost of implementing the regulations at just $1.92 annually per U.S. household. The cost pales in comparison with billions of dollars in revenue generated by water-based tourism. After all, beaches are the top U.S. vacation destination. When you consider the economic benefit of water-based tourism, investing in monitoring sewage spills and notifying the public clearly pays off.

Unfortunately, the Bush administration will not let the EPA implement the new rules. The administration refuses to require sewer system monitoring or to make sewer operators notify local officials and citizens when sewage contamination threatens human health.

With the summer beach season in full swing, it's time for the administration to reassess its position. A crackdown on sewage contamination not only would make for happier summer vacations across the country but also would keep related water-based economies strong. This kind of win-win outcome would benefit everyone who wants to take a dip in the water this summer.

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